Caernarfon Castle

Thirteenth Stop: Caernarfon

Caernarfon town and castle, Wales

Upon entering the seaside town of Caernarfon we were astonished and delighted by the sheer grandeur of its castle. There were eight massive towers (with smaller turrets crowning those towers), an impenetrable gatehouse, a colossal curtain wall with many twisting passages, two main gates, and even a water gate to the Seiont River– this castle had it all. We had two hours to explore and we didn’t even finish due to the sheer size of this fortress. Caernarfon, becoming the capital of the Northern Wales after its conquest by King Edward I, was built not only to protect the capital city, but also as a major symbol of English authority and power.

Ashleigh, resting against the battlements

Long before Edward’s time, when the Romans occupied southern Britain, there was a fort and settlement called ‘Segontium’ on the outskirts of the modern town Caernarfon. Segontium was positioned near the bank of the River Seiont, due to its sheltered nature and also as boat traffic up the Seiont would have been able to supply the fort. Little is known about the fate of Segontium after the Romans departed from Britain in the early 5th century, but it is written in history that during the construction of Caernafon Castle a tomb was uncovered that the Romans left behind, the final resting place of Emperor Magnus Maximus. In legend, Emperor Maximus had dreamt of a fortress, “the fairest that man ever saw”, within a city at the mouth of a river and opposite an island. Could this have been a prophecy of the future Caernarfon castle? King Edward I seemed to think so, and in 1283 he began to work on one of the most magnificent and imposing castles in the British Isles. In 1294, Wales broke out in rebellion under the leadership of Madog ap Llyweyln and Caernarfon was a priority target. Unfortunately for the English, the castle wasn’t even close to completion and its defences were deplorable. It was quickly captured and anything flammable was set alight, including the rest of the town. It wasn’t long, however, until English forces moved in to retake Caernarfon, clean up the mess, and begin rebuilding what was destroyed. Afterwards, work on Caernarfon castle began anew and continued at a steady rate until 1330 when King Edward I ran out of money, moved on to more important matters, or simply gave up on his castle building crusade in Wales. Just like Beaumaris castle, Caernarfon was besieged in 1403 during the “Glyndŵr Rising” a second Welsh revolution led by another man with a funny name. The French, jumping at any chance to irritate the English, decided to lend a hand, but this time Caernarfon was a fully-functional battle station and the siege proved unsuccessful. Caernarfon was also garrisoned by Royalists during the English Civil War in the mid-17th century and was besieged three times during that war. After being surrendered to Parliamentarian forces in 1646, Caernarfon castle retired from action. Decades later, the castle and town walls were ordered to be dismantled, but everyone quietly decided amongst themselves that it would be far too much stone to move and the work never got started. Through turbulent times and threat of destruction, the castle has survived in good condition and still retains its formidable stature.

Caernarfon Castle was built to be an impressive symbol of the new English rule in Wales. It is believed that the design of the castle was a representation of the Roman Walls of Constantinople; the castle towers are polygonal rather than round. The conscious use of imagery from the Byzantine Roman Empire was an assertion of authority by Edward I, influenced by the legendary dream of the previously mentioned Roman Emperor, Magnus Maximus. Caernarfon’s walls were built as two separate enclosures, east and west wards, which roughly form a “figure eight”. The divide between the two wards was supposed to be established by a range of fortified buildings, but they were never built. All the towers, battlements and firing galleries made Caernarfon Castle one of the most formidable concentrations of fire-power to be found in the Middle Ages. The Eagle Tower at the western corner of the castle was once the grandest; it has three turrets which were once surmounted by statues of eagles, another symbol of Roman supremacy, though the remains of these statues are hard to make out. At the basement level there was a water gate through which visitors travelling up the River Seiont could enter the castle. The main entrance from the town is the grand, twin towered King’s Gate that, if it was completed, would have been protected by two drawbridges, six portcullises, a right-angle turn before a lower enclosure, as well as many arrow loops and murder holes along the way. The Queen’s Gate, also left unfinished, was meant to give direct access to the castle without having to proceed through the town. King Edward I had big ideas when it came to his castles but it seems he was never able to complete them.

Caernarfon Castle design

One of the most famous tales in the world, first written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, had a profound effect on the Welsh people and medieval politics. The legend of King Arthur was extremely popular during that era, especially among the Welsh, who believed in the prophecy of a messianic King who would return from death to banish all enemies from their land. Edward I knew all about the legends of the “one true king of Britain” and used it to his benefit. In fact, the notion of Arthur’s eventual return to rule a united Britain was adopted by all the Plantagenet kings from 1154 to 1485, including Edward, to justify their rule. Once the ancient King Arthur had been safely pronounced dead and buried at Glastonbury, in an attempt to deflate Welsh dreams, the Plantagenets were then able to make ever greater use of Arthur as a political cult to support their dynasty. “Relics” of King Arthur were collected by Plantagenets, including Arthur’s magical sword Excalibur by Richard I, Arthur and Queen Guinevere’s bones by King Henry II, and Arthur’s crown by Edward I. Similarly, ‘Round Tables’ – jousting and dancing in imitation of Arthur and his knights – occurred at least eight times in England between 1242 and 1345, including one held by Edward I in 1284 to celebrate his conquest of Wales and the ‘re-unification’ of Arthurian Britain. It is said that the design of Caernarfon castle, drawing on the imagery of Roman sites around Britain, was also Edward’s intent of creating an allusion of his Arthurian legitimacy.

Burial site of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, Glastonbury Abbey, England

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